De facto states - states that have failed to win international recognition - have long been understudied 'blank spots,' overlooked in academic literature and on maps. However, they play critical and contentious roles in international politics: Since the end of the Cold War, de facto states have been involved in a disproportionately large number of violent conflicts, resulting in their establishment, change of status, or elimination. Achieving a better understanding of the dynamics of de facto state politics is, therefore, crucial.
Almost all de facto states that survive for some time have a powerful 'patron' that provides security guarantees and economic support. Too often this has resulted in the de facto states simply being brushed off as hapless pawns in their patron's power play. In this project we challenge this assumption, examining what room de facto states have for independent agency. In the project we ask: How do popular attitudes restrain/resource de facto state leaders vis-a-vis the patron? How do these leaders navigate between domestic demands and the patron's expectations? And how do patron states exert their influence?
The project covers the six de facto states that had their own patron state at the time when the project started: Abkhazia, Donetsk, Lugansk, Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, South Ossetia, Taiwan and Transnistria. In addition, we look at two post-Cold War de facto states that despite having a patron failed already in the 1990s, namely Srpska Krajina and Republika Srpska.
The relevance of the project, as well as the potential for violence in de facto state conflicts, became apparent immediately after the project’s inception, when war broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. In 2022, Donetsk and Luhansk were first recognized by, and then incorporated into, their "patron state" Russia . In 2023, we have again seen new acts of war, when Azerbaijan after almost 30 years succeeded in recapturing the last "independent" parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and this de facto state thus ceased to exist.
Russia's warfare in Ukraine has not only contributed to the disappearance of three de facto states over the past year or so, the war has also for the time being made it impossible to carry out our planned surveys in the post-Soviet region. On the other hand, we see an upswing in international research cooperation and close and good collaboration with other central research environments (apart from the large Russian one). For example, the project has collaborated with the De Facto States Research Unit at the University of Tartu on organizing annual workshops in connection with the Tartu Conference on East European and Eurasian Studies. We have also collaborated with a research group based at the University of Jena that researches patron-client relationships. Outside the post-Soviet area, in 2023 we have conducted our planned survey on patron-client relations in Northern Cyprus.
De facto states are states that have seceded unilaterally from another state and are denied international recognition. They control substantial parts of the territory they lay claim to but lead a precarious existence since the state from which they have seceded may at any time legitimately recapture it. Therefore, they depend upon another, stronger state - a patron - not only for their economic well-being but also for their very survival.
Such patron-client relations are not uncommon in international politics, but with de facto states the power relationship in these dyads is particularly asymmetrical. For that reason, de facto states are often dismissed as mere puppets. Even so, de facto states remarkably often defy their patron: they adopt policies not to its liking and elect leaders that do not enjoy its support. Such unruly client behavior may strain relations to the patron, but rarely leads to their breakdown.
The patron-client model in international politics was developed during the Cold War to explain relations between the two superpowers and their respective clients in the Third World. The ability of small and weak states to switch sides to the other camp gave them considerable measure of maneuverability vis-à-vis their patrons. After the Cold War, however, the independent agency of a de facto state client must have other sources: defection is no longer an option, there is no competition for patronhood.
In this project we aim to revise the patron-client model to better fit contemporary realities. What room for independent agency do the de facto state leaders have? Where are the 'red lines'? What can this tell us about power relations in asymmetrical relations between aligned states in general? We propose that client state leaders are engaged in two-level nested games - with the patron, and with their own populations - and that they can exploit the constraints emplaced on them by popular domestic pressure as a resource in their dealings with their patron.